Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dare To Be Simple

This abstract painting bears the hand stamped words, "Dare To Be Simple"  It is part of a small series I did called "Zen Squared".  I liked this idea, dare to be simple, when I saw it in Canadian Designer, Bruce Mau's Manifesto for Creativity.  It seems to me that the call to live simply, create something simple, is daring in this modern world, where we are constantly assaulted with the idea that more is better, more stuff, more money....more, more, more.  

I can see the call to complexity in my own painting where I think I need to do more, add more, to make a painting better.  Many artists will tell you how hard it is to know when to stop, how many a painting has been ruined by adding one more thing.  How daring is the Zen enso, just a simple brush stroke on a white piece of paper.  How many of us are confident enough to think that a single brush stroke on a piece of paper will suffice?

In my mind Zen is the very essence of simplicity, just sitting, facing the wall.  Think enso as mentioned above, think tea ceremony, ikebana, bonsai.  Think of a temple with its sparse decor.  Think wabi sabi, the beauty of the old and worn (ah there is hope for us yet.  Forget the botox we're wabi sabi.)

In a strange way I think we crave simplicity as our world gets full and busy and complex.  Perhaps it is simply the inclinations for the pendulum to swing to the other side?  Perhaps by nature humans really thrive in a simple environment?  The modern urban environment buries us in an endless outpouring of sound and images and tastes until we're left feeling a bit numb and overwhelmed.   We are left swimming in a sea of clutter and chaos, tired and confused. And so the images and ideas of Zen are cleverly appropriated by admen and flashed at us in the hopes that we will buy one more thing to simplify our lives.  We might even want to leaf through a magazine called "Real Simple" to see all the things we need to make our lives simple, closet organizers and green tea and bath salts, and, and and.

But what is simplicity, really?  Why would we be interested in it? And how do we create it in our lives?  Is it less stuff, less work, is it just the opposite of more?  I think Philip Kapleau beautifully answers these questions in  "Three Pillars of Zen" when he says: "To squander is to destroy.  To treat things with reverence and gratitude, according to their nature and purpose, is to affirm their value and life, a life in which we are all equally rooted.  Wastefulness is a measure of .. our alienation from all things. from their Buddha-nature, from their essential unity with us".  

So if part of simplicity is living with less it means we get to work with our attachments, which according to Buddhism is the cause of our suffering.   Do I really need that thing, that thought?  Why do I think I need that?  Perhaps embracing simplicity calls for us to live more deeply, to savour, to be more conscious and thoughtful of what we do and say and think.   It sounds to me that it may be simple but not necessarily easy.


  1. Thought-provoking post you have there :).You got me thinking and reflecting deep.Thank You!

  2. Ahh, simplicity. I long for it and yet live a messy live.

    Your post reminds me of the Eight Awakenings of Great Beings (which would exclude me for the time being) by Dogen (1200-1253). In this translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi he said:
    The Buddha said, “Monks, if you want to be free from suffering, you should contemplate knowing how much is enough. By knowing it, you are in the place of enjoyment and peacefulness. If you know how much is enough, you are contented even when you sleep on the ground. If you don’t know it, you are discontented even when you are in heaven. You can feel poor even if you have much wealth. You may be constantly pulled by the five sense desires and pitied by those who know how much is enough. This is called “to know how much is enough.’”

  3. Yes, I do that a lot. Wanting to be a very simple painter but something happens and I don't like the flatness but I start building layers on layers and then going too far. Excellent writing! Thanks!

  4. Hello fellow travelers,

    Wandering Soul, great name, aren't we all wandering souls in our own way. I think Daishin, someone said that they were staying in place where everyone was in transition. And your comment was aren't we all? So there we are wandering souls in transition!

    Daishin, Great Dogen quote "to know how much is enough" Good question to have on hand to ask ourselves during the day? I remember a little story from the Dalai Lama that after driving by the shops in New York every day even he wanted the things in the windows, in some cases he didn't even know what they were. There it is the pull of the senses and desire.

    And Lori, yes, it's good to hear your similar experience.... sometimes I wonder well maybe I wasn't meant to be that kind of painter. But I have to say I am often drawn to those brave and confident paintings that seem fresh and simple to me. I am still aiming for more simplicity in my work. I guess the trick is to just keep painting and see where it takes us. John Daido Loori has a great book (I haven't looked at it in a while) called "Zen & Creativity where he talks about the creative process.

  5. Good question to ask during the day, you ask?
    When the desire to "have" something arises, go to the question: what is it? (meaning, what is lacking in my heart). Worth trying a few times.

  6. Oops, forgot to give credit for the "What is it?" practice. It comes from Zen teacher Joko Beck by way of her student (himself an accomplished teacher/author), Ezra Bayda. I frequently turn to his "Being Zen: bringing meditation into life" for practical advice (Shambala, 2003).

  7. Yes I love both Joko Beck and Ezra Bayda, so clear and practical. The Ezra Bayda book has wandered off with my daughter but I will have to find another copy. I do like that question. Is there someone else besides Bayda who uses "what is this all about?" It seems somehow familiar.

  8. And when life offers us is best to respond by simply being present to them. I am impressed by your writing and inspired by your artwork.